What is Workers' Compensation Court?

C. Mitchell
C. Mitchell
Workers that are injured while at work may be entitled to workers' compensation disability benefits.
Workers that are injured while at work may be entitled to workers' compensation disability benefits.

In most places, employees are protected from damage and loss caused by workplace accidents under law. These kinds of laws are called workers' compensation laws in the United States and Canada. Workers’ compensation claims in these jurisdictions are litigated in workers' compensation court. Because worker’s comp laws are typically state- or province-based, workers' compensation courts are almost always organized at the local level. They function in most respects like any other local court, but the only cases they hear pertain to workplace injuries and payment disputes.

A judge presides over a workers' compensation court and ultimately issues a judgment.
A judge presides over a workers' compensation court and ultimately issues a judgment.

Workers’ compensation works a lot like a mandatory insurance policy. Businesses and companies are required by law to hold workers' comp policies to protect their employees in the case of on-the-job injury. In practice, workers' comp means that an employee who slips and falls in an office hallway, or who is hurt in a hazardous construction zone at work, is not liable for his or her medical costs. Neither is the employee liable for lost work time on account of the injury, and the employer is usually prevented from taking retaliatory action such as firing and replacing an employee who got hurt at work.

Workers’ compensation appeals can be brought in the form of a new trial with a new judge.
Workers’ compensation appeals can be brought in the form of a new trial with a new judge.

In principle, workers’ compensation laws are more or less straightforward: employees are not liable for any injuries they sustain in the course of doing their job. Employers must pay for all medical costs in such cases, both immediate hospital and ambulance care and any longer-reaching medical conditions caused by the accident. The trouble comes with interpreting the laws, and determining how far they extend.

Each state has a separate workers' compensation program with different eligibility requirements and coverage criteria.
Each state has a separate workers' compensation program with different eligibility requirements and coverage criteria.

Disputes frequently arise with respect to workers' compensation coverage specifics. Employers may argue that workers' comp policies do not cover an injury if that injury was sustained while the employee was engaged in activities that were not essential to the job. Similarly, employers might refuse to cover all medical costs on the argument that some of the costs were owing to a preexisting condition unrelated to the workplace injury. Getting workers’ comp is often more difficult than simply filing a claim. An employee who files a workers’ compensation claim and is met with resistance often brings the matter to workers’ compensation court in the form of a workers’ compensation lawsuit.

Suing for workers’ compensation is a fairly frequent practice. Employers are required to maintain workers’ compensation policies in most jurisdictions, but these policies come at significant cost. It is often in an employer’s best financial interest to oppose workers’ comp claims that seem questionable. Defending a denial in workers’ compensation court is often less than paying for an employee’s long-term medical care or benefits.

Workers’ compensation court works as would any other court. The employer and the injured employee are each represented by a workers’ compensation lawyer. A judge presides over the trial, and ultimately issues a judgment. Workers’ compensation appeals can be brought in the form of a new trial with a new judge in workers’ compensation court, in a special workers' compensation court of appeals, or as a matriculation into the general appellate court system, as dictated by the local court rules.

Most of the time, workers’ compensation court is an instrument of state or local law. The rules and precedents that govern vary from court to court. All workers’ comp courts are devoted to the settlement of employee injury cases, however, and all serve the important function of ensuring both that employers maintain safe workplaces, and that they take care of employees who were hurt on the job through no fault of their own.

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    • Workers that are injured while at work may be entitled to workers' compensation disability benefits.
      Workers that are injured while at work may be entitled to workers' compensation disability benefits.
    • A judge presides over a workers' compensation court and ultimately issues a judgment.
      A judge presides over a workers' compensation court and ultimately issues a judgment.
    • Workers’ compensation appeals can be brought in the form of a new trial with a new judge.
      Workers’ compensation appeals can be brought in the form of a new trial with a new judge.
    • Each state has a separate workers' compensation program with different eligibility requirements and coverage criteria.
      Each state has a separate workers' compensation program with different eligibility requirements and coverage criteria.